Sam Donovan is an award winning film and TV director who has worked on many high profile BAFTA and Emmy Winning TV shows including: Skins, Last Tango in Halifax, Utopia, Humans, The Living and the Dead, Liar, The Widow and most recently The Crown.
Sam studied at The Northern Film School in Leeds and the Northern Media School in Sheffield.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
Unfortunately I wasn’t one of those kids who was born with a Super 8 camera in their hand! I grew up in rural Lincolnshire, our nearest town, Grimsby, being 8 miles away. To say it was isolated was an understatement, and any dream of being a filmmaker was just unimaginable. But what the village did give me was characters, story, drama and gossip – all of which I loved. I was very average at school and didn’t excel or have passion for anything in particular, so when it came to college and choosing what to do my parents said, “You’re good with people – why not work in tourism?” I couldn’t think of anything else – so off I went.
I then got on a hotel management training scheme doing the nightshift. This was very lonely as I had the day to myself when friends were at work. Although I’d loved films as a kid, this was when I became obsessive about watching different types of movies. I did this job for a bit and realised this wasn’t the route for me. All my mates were off travelling so I thought I should join them – but first I needed money. So I got a job selling gas and electric door to door in Nottingham. One of my work mates was doing a part time film course, and asked me to write a script with him. So in the evenings after work we put this script together, which then got picked to be made on the course. My friend was directing it and asked me if I wanted to come and run on the film. I took two days off work whilst they filmed it and saw what was in our heads coming to life. And from that moment on, at the age of 22, I had a passion and knew what I wanted to do.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
I went travelling to Australia and South East Asia, working various different crappy jobs to earn money whilst I was away, but gaining valuable people skills along the way. In my downtime, I was reading scripts, watching all the movies I could, watching lots of short films at festivals and coming up with my own script ideas. When I eventually came back to the UK I went back to university to study an FDA in film and TV production. It was a very practical course, which suited me perfectly as I’m more inclined to learn from doing rather than being told in a classroom. We got to do a few months of all disciplines – camera, sound, art dept, writing and directing and this was so important to actually learn and have a go at what each department does.
Shane Meadows was a huge influence at the time. He had made his first few feature films, but had made over 50 short films with his friends before he got his break. So this is what we did on the weekends – go out and shoot stuff. This was before decent cheap cameras so we’d have to borrow from the film school – and this is where I made so many mistakes but learnt the most. For example, I made one film where we constantly crossed the line (unintentionally) and it just wouldn’t cut together. A big lesson and something I’ve never done since. Another challenge was getting performances out of your mates and new actors, and what environment works best for one actor, doesn’t necessarily work for someone else… and so many others. It was great making these mistakes when it didn’t matter and there was no pressure, because when it came to my graduation films I’d learnt a lot and therefore could put what I’d learnt together when it mattered.
When I was at film school I was also realistic about the possibility of becoming a director when I graduated. I worked as an assistant director on as many of the other student and local films as possible. It’s a thankless, highly stressful job, but I learnt loads from watching other directors work – and it meant once I’d graduated my CV had a few credits on it. Directing is also a lonely world where you don’t get to learn directly from other directors very often. I love being on set, and would work on any project I could, but it’s hard work with gruelling hours so assistant directing was good training for the real world and I picked up lots of friends and connections on the way. But the main thing it did for me was make me realise I want to direct.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
To get anything made at film school I had to write my own scripts, which I tried tirelessly to do so I could shoot something and hone my directing skills. But to be honest writing is not my strong point… so I found this very frustrating and would have killed for a decent writing partner. Also, whilst at film school my script-writing tutor was pushing me to make darker, authored work. They mocked me when I would say I wanted to make films with meaning, heart and comedy. I wanted to make people laugh and cry. I would give examples like Billy Elliot, The Full Monty, A Room for Romeo Brass, and they just didn’t think these types of film were highbrow enough. But I persisted anyway and when it came to the graduation screening, my film was a breath of fresh air compared with everyone else’s dark arthouse stuff.
It’s tough financially when you go out into the real world and I was spinning a lot of plates with trying to bring in money and working as an AD on anything I could. Persistence really is the key. My student film wasn’t strong enough to get me an agent or any commercial work, but I was beginning to get a name as an AD and a did a lot of shorts for Screen Yorkshire and a few low-budget features. Eventually, Screen Yorkshire took a chance on me and commissioned me to direct a short film. The script wasn’t great, but the performances and the look stood out, so they took another chance on me and commissioned me again, this time with a film called Hammerhead, which did well on the festival circuit.
But whilst this was getting pushed around I still couldn’t get an agent, so I spent a year working as an edit producer where we re-versioned the Japanese version of Ninja Warrior for Challenge TV in the UK. A weird turn, but turned out to be good practice in how you can retell a story in the edit, changing the cut and adding new VO. But my advice is that it’s a tough business and you have to love it. Just because you’re doing a job that’s not perfect, learn what you can from it. Get ready to jump at a new challenge when you can and be brave enough to make the leap. Meeting people and getting hands-on experience is vital and you have to take chances. You’ve got to graft and you’ll learn and hopefully progress from doing that. Nothing comes easy in this industry.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
I’ve honed my craft by making a lot of different genres. I’ve purposely chosen different types of projects so that I can learn something new from each one. I love the challenge and research you have to do for each. I’ve done comedy/drama, sci-fi, thrillers, horror, period pieces and I’ve learnt different skills from them all that I’m hoping it make me a more rounded director, adding new technical strings to my bow and new ways into the story. But with all these different ways of telling stories, what I’ve learnt is that character must always be the first and foremost priority.
Regarding my voice, I think that’s about instinct and what you’re into personally. It’s all about what you bring into a project from your own experiences/opinions, what books you’re reading, what photographers and art you’re looking at, what music/podcasts get you going and what TV and films you are getting inspired by. I think your voice is constantly changing – with every life experience you evolve personally and as a story-teller, and it’s vital that it does, so it keeps your work and point of view fresh, interesting and hopefully innovative.
A strong work ethic is vital in this industry. We work crazy hours with bigger and bigger budgets, and therefore more execs to answer to, and are under pressure to deliver in a competitive market. It’s not easy, but its hugely rewarding and there are so many brilliant projects out there. It’s vital to be compassionate and caring to your fellow cast and crew. To get the best out of your actors and HoDs you need to inspire them and work with them, not tell them what to do, and in that way, everyone does their best work. That’s when things get truly exciting for everyone and brilliant work evolves.
How did you get your first break?
I pushed my short film Hammerhead out on the festival circuit very hard – knowing that I needed it to get traction for me to move on. Luckily it did well and when I applied for the Channel 4 Coming Up scheme, they loved the tone and from my AD experience they be could be confident I would complete the tough TV schedule. I suppose this was my first real break, but I think everything you do is a break and your career is just series of tiny little breaks. I treat every project like it’s my last because I want it to be the best it can be. Also, every project you do has the potential to move you onto something bigger and better, if you view it in the right way. I also think it’s about identifying and playing to your strengths.
With my shorts and Coming Up, I worked a lot with young people and got very naturalistic performances, so when I interviewed for Skins, I played up on this so they were confident I could deliver. Again, with Last Tango in Halifax, at the interview stage I played up on the fact a lot of my shorts were about family and talked to them in detail about how I identified with the story, how my own personal experiences related to the script. It’s not just about being able to do the job, but what you and your passion can bring to it. Pitching is a very important part of the job and it takes time to get right. How much you talk about character in the meeting, what visual mood boards you put together, how you relate to it personally and how much you listen and are able to collaborate. It’s all vital in winning the job.
Rejection is very much a part of the industry and you have to get a thick skin. You’re not going to win every pitch, but you have to learn from each one and not take it personally if you don’t get the gig, but move forward and put what you learnt into the next one.
TV Credits: Coming Up (2010), Secret Diary of a Call Girl (2011), Skins (2012), Last Tango in Halifax (2012), Starlings (2013), The Smoke (2014), Utopia (2014), Humans (2015), The Living and the Dead (2016), Jamestown (2017), Liar (2017), The Widow (2019), The Crown (2019).
Film Credits: King Ponce (2007), Hammerhead (2009).
Photograph: Coco Van Oppens